Soas could be institutionally antisemitic, says chair of complaint panel

Senior lecturer David Hirsh says the university’s failure to properly respond to a Jew-hate case could be evidence that antisemitism is a structural problem at the institution


The chairman of a panel set up to rule on a Jew-hate case at a leading London university has slammed its bosses for ignoring its call for a wider investigation into potential institutional antisemitism on campus.

Goldsmiths senior lecturer David Hirsh was appointed by the School of Oriental and African Studies to oversee an appeal made by Noah Lewis, a former postgraduate student from Canada, who said he had suffered as a result of a “toxic antisemitic environment at the school”.

Mr Lewis was initially paid £500 as part of a settlement with the university, but he appealed with the help of two law charities and was awarded £15,000 in March, 2020.

At the time, the appeals panel called on Soas to appoint external investigators to conduct a wider review into whether there was institutional antisemitism at the college and within its Student Union. 

Dr Hirsh said the fact that recommendation had been ignored for more than a year showed the college did not take the issue “seriously enough” and could itself be an indicator of institutional antisemitism.

However the college has hit back saying it has chosen a different route – introducing a new anti-racism charter that went “well beyond the requirements placed on universities and other public institutions”.

The row erupted after Dr Hirsh, a sociology professor at Goldsmiths University of London, published an open letter about the case.

It detailed how, in March, 2020, the appeals panel had called for Soas to work with the Union of Jewish Students and the government’s antisemitism adviser on appointing external investigators to consider whether antisemitism was a campus-wide issue.

The panel set out a framework for the investigation and warned it would “not be appropriate for Soas or its Student Union to investigate their own cultures”.

The probe should be conducted, the panel concluded, even though Soas had settled its case with Mr Lewis.

In his letter, Dr Hirsh said: “The panel I chaired made clear and unanimous determinations which have so far been completely ignored. This is further prima facie evidence that there is a problem of institutional antisemitism at Soas.”

He added: “It is clear enough by now that Soas does not take the claim that it has a problem with institutional antisemitism seriously enough to do anything about it. Good practice requires that an institution is not well placed to make that kind of determination about its own culture, but that is what Soas has done.”

Dr Hirsh said he suspected failure to adopt the recommendation was due to a belief the allegation was a “bad faith move relating to politics around the conflicts between Israel and Palestine”.

Inside sources within Soas told the JC that rather than learning lessons from the case, pro-Palestinian staff had insisted the case was politically motivated and branded Mr Lewis a “rightist”.

Early attempts by Vice Chancellor Adam Habib to adopt a new antisemitism code were shelved and academics even voted not to accept the internationally recognised definition of antisemitism at Soas.

Dr Hirsh added: “Since the summer of 2019, two new cohorts of students, some of them Jewish students, will have been at Soas for a considerable period of time. Soas owes those students a duty of care. It has not been carrying out that duty.

“It is further true that Soas has a reputation, deserved or not, in particular amongst Jews, for being a place that has a toxic antisemitic environment that is tolerated and protected by the institutional practice and culture of the School itself.”

In its response the school criticised Dr Hirsh for going public with his views but he said he had no choice as the school “felt itself able to just ignore the findings of its own Appeals Panel.

“I do not feel that it would be right for me to keep what I know about this issue at Soas secret.”

The university said: “The route we have chosen to take to tackle discrimination goes well beyond the requirements placed on universities and other public institutions. We have spent many months since January engaging with our staff and student community to develop a comprehensive and widely-supported response to these challenges in drawing up our Charter on Discrimination, which is formally titled our "Charter on Racism, Antisemitism and All Forms of Cultural, Ethnic and Religious Chauvinism".

“This policy has been adopted by all of the governing and academic structures at Soas, including our Board of Trustees.   This Charter is now a mandatory policy for all individuals and stakeholders at Soas and it comprehensively addresses the issues which have been raised in relation to anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. We stand firm against antisemitism, as we do against all forms of discrimination. Most importantly, we do this in a manner which is consistent with the principles of academic freedom.”

It added: “The Charter makes a clear, demonstrable commitment to our staff and students that we will not tolerate any form of racism or religious chauvinism, and that we are committed to providing an inclusive space for all members of our community. The principles in the charter and rules they support apply equally and to all.

“Our student community - newly arriving students and returning - can be assured that this charter will be applied rigorously and without fear or favour so that we genuinely address and tackle antisemitism, alongside action to address all forms of racism.” 


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